Letter from New Zealand: Demonising of Gatland shows no let-up

While progress is continuing after the Christchurch earthquakes, it is slow so far

CJ Stander rises above the mountains during Lions training on Friday. Photo: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

CJ Stander rises above the mountains during Lions training on Friday. Photo: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

 

It’s been relentless and it will only intensify, and then there’s the rugby as well. So far, it’s also been different, quite unlike Australia and South Africa four and eight years ago or even New Zealand 12 years ago.

Last time around, the Lions stopped off en route for a commercially driven 59-8 win over a Barbarians selection that, save for the location, heat and humidity, none of us can remember. The first Australian leg was in Perth, where Michael Foley sent out the espoirs and the Lions romped to a 69-17.

Other romps followed, with only Michael Cheika’s bristling Waratahs targeting Johnny Sexton, and Ewen McKenzie’s Reds irreverently having a go from everywhere, managing to ruffle the Lions feathers before the Brumbies were partially handed a win by the tourists’ pre first-test selection.

Even some provincial sides were beaten handily 12 years ago, but the nature of the Lions’ hard-earned 13-7 win over the scratch Provincial Barbarians in last Saturday’s opener confirmed there’ll be no romps on this tour. That was meant to be the handy one.

It’s been more cultural too than the ring-fenced Lions of 12 years ago too, as the Lions have set out to embrace Kiwi culture and win over hearts and minds. The Irish A/Development tour of 1997 had begun in the same Whangarei, but most of us had never been north of there, so the drive to Waitangi for Sunday’s welcome was as new as it was memorable.

The biblical rain of Friday and Saturday had been replaced by glorious sunshine. The setting at the Bay of Islands was breathtaking beautiful. The sight of the 80-90 party representing the Lions which, besuited, climbed the green hill in the Treaty Grounds for the three challenges laid down by an estimated 400 Maori warriors was spine-tingling.

The final challenge, a Karanga (call of welcome) and haka Powhiri (welcome chant) in front of the Meeting House, made the All Blacks haka seem like a little ditty by comparison. Mobile phone and iPad video space was gobbled up everywhere, but this was a recording to be kept forever.

Back to Auckland, and the voice recordings were still on after the conclusion of Warren Gatland’s press briefing on Monday evening, during which he had bridled and bristled at a question which referred to ‘Warrenball’.

The Lions head coach muttered “F***. I don’t know why I have to f****** keep defending myself.” Cue the ‘Cursing Gatland’ shock headlines, which in turn gave the NZ Herald the cue for their daily demonising of the Lions head coach, much of which seems to date back to him disapproving of the All Blacks booing Quade Cooper in a New Zealand-Australia game, and Herald presenting Michael Cheika as a clown on the morning of that game.

“I was at Eden Park watching the game a couple of weeks ago and, as a Kiwi, I was embarrassed,” Gatland said at the time. “There was still a large portion of the crowd booing Quade Cooper. Get over it. Then there was the clown stuff in the Herald.”

Whereupon the Herald published a caricature of Gatland in clown regalia.

So on Wednesday the Herald’s back page lead was a picture of the Lions head coach, taken at a Lions training session, and pointing in the direction of the camera, with the headline Grumpy Gatland.

Wednesday night against the Blues was the one that got away for the Lions. They should have won that game. The improved performance earned a little more respect, but not much. When Gatland suggested that after seven months together, the Super Rugby sides would not be far off the All Blacks – who, like the Lions, will be relatively under-cooked – it was the Herald’s excuse to suggest he didn’t understand New Zealand rugby, and particularly how brilliantly far removed from the Super Rugby sides the All Blacks actually are.

On foot of the All Blacks squad being announced, Steve Hansen was, according to the Herald, moved to say: “I don’t think there’s any comparison between Super Rugby and Test rugby. I don’t know what his thinking is.” This was, it said the paper, in response to “Gatland’s take on the standard of domestic rugby compared to international”, even though it was made in the context primarily of time together.

Presumably, the same Hansen will be of the view that the All Blacks should only improve as the series and the year progresses, due to more training and match time together.

It was good to move on to Christchurch. The people are friendly. Irish and British accents are recognised immediately, prompting strangers pretty much everywhere you go to invariably ask: “Are you over for the rugby?”

Some, understandably, don’t see the need to ask.

“You’ll get better,” was one man’s opening remark on over-hearing our chat in a café. (By the by, the coffee is uniformly good!). “You’ll get better with more time together,” he repeated. And, he added, this is what most Kiwis wish to see, ideally taking the series down to the wire by winning one of the first two tests. “You’ll get better,” he said, reassuringly as he went out the door.

“Christchurch is getting there,” is another regular refrain in reference to the way the city has been slowly rebuilding since the horrific earthquakes of 2010 and, especially, in February 2012. Perhaps more sunny days have helped the impression, but certainly compared to the Irish tour in June 2012, the rebuilding is clearly more advanced, with many hundreds, maybe thousands, of Irish construction workers here seeking employment.

There’s a constant din of work in progress. Temporary cafes, shops, restaurants and bars have restored some of the hub to the city centre, and furniture shops abound. Almost all say the process has been too slow though.

Gatland, the Lions captain Sam Warburton and manager John Spencer attended a small ceremony on Thursday to pay their respects to the Christchurch earthquake victims and their families. They presented Lions teddy bears and caps to Dan (eight) and Sean (six) O’Connor, who attended with their mum Sarah, and whose father John O’Connor – an Irishman – was one of the victims.

Sam Warburton with Dan, Sean and Sarah O'Connor at a memorial ceremony for victims of the Christchurch earthuake. Photo: Inpho
Sam Warburton with Dan, Sean and Sarah O'Connor at a memorial ceremony for victims of the Christchurch earthuake. Photo: Inpho

This week is also a reminder as to what Christchurch is missing to some extent. Twelve years ago, the first test (‘Speargate’ and all that) was held here, with 37,200 crammed into Jade Stadium, and the Lions and Kiwi fans provided an economic boon to the city.

The AMI Stadium’s normal capacity is half that, although there is planning permission for a proposed new stadium in the city with a closed roof.

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